Ed Davey MP writes… An onshore wind cap makes no sense

A few wind turbinesRarely a week goes by without an onshore wind story appearing in the media – normally negative, with some Conservative source trying to undermine this important source of renewable energy. The past few weeks have been no different.

First, let’s set the record straight. Liberal Democrats in Government will not accept a cap on onshore wind. Of course what other parties choose to put in their manifestos is a matter for them. But this Coalition Government is not changing tack on onshore wind or renewables and we will not lose focus or rewrite policy.

Second, let’s remind ourselves of how successful we’ve been with onshore wind and renewable energy more generally. There is now enough onshore wind to power 4 million homes and since 2010 my Department has seen developers announce £4.6 billion worth of new investment, which could support over 7,700 jobs. Many of these ‘green jobs’ are highly skilled, well paid, and are spread across the UK.

Wind energy in one day earlier this year provided nearly 17% of the UK’s electricity, with renewable electricity as a whole more than doubling its contribution since the last election: with the current investment pipeline we will beat our 2020 targets for renewable electricity.

Third, onshore wind is also one of the cheapest large-scale renewables so we are now able to cut our support rates – a sign of policy success. Last year they were cut by 10%, and as the costs continue to fall we will move to auctions to ensure that market forces set prices and only the cheapest projects will be agreed, at least cost to consumers.

Fourth, we’ve made huge strides to ensure that communities have a greater say in the planning process and it is now compulsory for them to be involved in pre-planning application consultation. Community benefits have also been massively increased – from £1,000 per Megawatt (MW) to £5,000 per MW per year, for the whole life of the project. What could that mean for a community? One that agreed a 20MW wind farm could receive benefits worth £100,000 per year. It is of course up to communities and developers to work out how best to use the money, but for example, at the Meikle Carewe windfarm near Aberdeen, people are getting £122 off their annual electricity bills.

So, that’s where we are, but why shouldn’t we cap it in the future? For three reasons:

1) Cost to consumers: as onshore wind is one of the cheapest large-scale renewables, a cap would mean we would have to plug the gap with a more expensive replacement. This would increase consumer bills. This point was made strongly in a recent report by the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng) who estimated that plugging an onshore wind ‘gap’ with offshore wind could cost an additional £300,000 per turbine per year.

2) Energy Security: at a time when Russia is issuing threats about supplying gas to Europe, energy security is front of mind for all. We are making huge progress by increasing our ‘home-grown’ energy sources, so it makes no sense to put a stop to the cheapest “home-grown” renewable technology – unless you want to reduce pressure on Putin.

3) Flexibility: our whole approach to moving towards home-grown low carbon energy is that we should remain ‘technology neutral’. The recent report from the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change was clear on leaving all low carbon options for policymakers – given the gravity of the climate change threat, it would be environmentally irresponsible to take a key option like onshore wind off the table.

So, let’s remember that while there will always be a healthy debate about which form of energy works best, whether it’s good value for money and where it should be located, the best way to boost energy security, tackle climate change and do it an affordable way is to continue with a balanced mix, with onshore wind playing a key role.

* Ed Davey is the MP for Kingston & Surbiton and Leader of the Liberal Democrats

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  • It is Hinkley C, illegally subsidised new nuclear power, that makes no sense.

    Nuclear power makes no sense in terms of economics, in terms of the perpetual and growing danger from nuclear waste, in terms of the promises made to Liberal Democrat voters and supporters at the General Election.

    If the German government can be working to remove all their nuclear power plants and to achieve 80% of their energy from nationally secure renewable sources before Hinkley C even comes on line, why is Ed Davey taking us back to the dinosaur technology of nuclear?

  • Ruwan Kodikara 18th Apr '14 - 9:48am

    John Tilley says we should be following a non nuclear energy policy like Germany. Germany’s energy policy is seeing new coal plants generating electricity and sky high prices for consumers because of the subsidy cost of renewables. In contrast in the uk we are seeing coal plants closing and through a balanced low carbon energy mix we are limiting the impact on prices. It should also be remembered that Liberal Democrat policy is no longer anti nuclear power so what Ed Davey is doing is implementing party policy.

  • Runway Kodikara
    You misquote me. This is what I said —
    “….If the German government can be working to remove all their nuclear power plants and to achieve 80% of their energy from nationally secure renewable sources before Hinkley C even comes on line, why is Ed Davey taking us back to the dinosaur technology of nuclear?”

    I asked a question. Ruwan, why not answer my question rather than pretending that I said something else?

    I should also point out that the change in party policy was before the EU ruled the subsidy to Hinkley C would be illegal. Maybe you would like to answer that point as well?

  • Ruwan. I apologise for your name being garbled by the predictive text on my IPad. It was not deliberate.

  • Ruwan Kodikara 18th Apr '14 - 10:36am

    No offence taken John.

    If the Uk government were to follow the German route we would have much higher prices for consumers and have higher carbon emissions. That does not seem a sensible low carbon energy policy to me.
    The European Commission has not ruled that the Hinkley Point C contract is illegal and will not give a judgement till later this year. Clearly if it were to do so the Hinkley Point C development in its current form could not proceed.

  • Ruwan,
    Your understanding of the EU position is not what was published in the EU report a few weeks ago.

    But let me remind you of what Ed Davey himself said in his speech to our conference in September 2013 (it is on the party’s website still) —
    “…,And Conference, it’s my concern about energy bills that’s led me to be so tough on nuclear power. I heard the debate today. I respect it. But I have to deliver the Coalition Agreement. That says “no public subsidy”. And on behalf of consumers, that’s what I’ll deliver. “

  • Jenny Barnes 18th Apr '14 - 12:06pm

    ” There is now enough onshore wind to power 4 million homes”

    This statement is very misleading. In wind energy speak, a “home” is 0.5kW continuous power output equivalent. So this is actually 4GW, equivalent to 2 large conventional 4 turbine fossil fuel plants. That means roughly 12 GW of installed wind capacity, as the likely delivery of power is around 1/3 of the rated capacity.
    However. While a typical home does indeed use around 4MWh / year – the equivalent of 0.5 kw continuous, it will also typically need 16 MWh per year of heat, and of course the inhabitants of the home will require further energy for transport, and yet more embedded in food and goods, including 9 MWh for transport. So powering a typical real home actually needs more than 3kw continuous , not 0.5kw.
    Onshore wind is well worth doing, but we need to do much more, concentrated solar in hot sunny places for example to really get our renewable energy to the level required.

  • A Social Liberal 18th Apr '14 - 3:11pm


    I don’t understand. We are discussing electricity power, yes? So why bring other energies into the debate? Surely, whilst everything other than electricity you mentioned may well be true, it is not germane?

  • Jenny Barnes 18th Apr '14 - 6:00pm

    If we’re discussing electrical power, then the usual measure of output is the kW. Not a notional “home”, which could mean anything from the 0.5 kW it means in windspeak, to 3kW plus if you’re thinking about the energy demands of a household. I think it’s germane because the use of a windspeak “home” as a measure of output is confusing or meaningless.
    And we’re actually talking about renewable energy. Electricity is an important part of our energy consumption, but only about 25% of the total. We still need the oil for our transport, gas for our heating, and other energy for goods and services. In the article ED says that on a good day wind provided 17% of our electricity; that’s 4% or so of our total energy needs. We have a long way to go.

  • Ed Davey’s defense of on-shore wind is totally undermined by the hard data coming out of NETA…
    Whilst there might be sufficient capacity to provide power to 4 million homes, if and only if all the on-shore wind farms were running at full load 24x7x365, the NETA data shows that on-shore wind is not a cost effective nor reliable way of generating the quantities of electricity we need. If Ed wishes to disagree then if he really believes in his words (and has the guts to act), he should directly connect the 4 million homes to the wind farms and so prove his point…

  • Let’s try again. “…power 4 million homes…” means onshore wind produces a number of kilowatt hours which, when divided by the notional power consumption of a home, gives the answer 4 million. That notional power consumption will go down with the use of more efficient devices and practices, and up if the home covers more of its activity with electricity – charging an electric car for example. Then, as others have observed, the share of the national power consumption also includes many things outside the home.

    And then, do all of those kilowatt hours actually get used? Do we use all the power generated by wind overnight to pump water uphill, or is some fraction simply lost?

  • The figures in Ed’s article need publicising more widely. From the stuff I get from various environmental charities, you’d think there’d been no progress at all on renewables.

  • Jenny Barnes 19th Apr '14 - 8:57am

    Roland. No, it doesn’t mean that. But thank you for proving my point that measuring energy output in “homes” is confusing and misleading.

  • Jenny Barnes
    I appreciate that you have considerable knowledge of this subject. Your contributions on discussions of energy policy are always well informed. What you say seems entirely reasonable.
    However, communicating to a mass audience about the volume of electricity needed sometimes requires us to use ‘Blue Peter’ units of measurement. This must be frustrating for people who have a greater technical knowledge of the subject. But I cannot see an alternative .
    I know that when my bills come they record KWs per hour or some such. They used to mention ‘therms’. Maybe they still do, I stopped looking at this sort of unnecessary detail about forty years ago. All I really care about on the bill is how much I have to pay. Similarly when I fill the petrol tank of my car I don’t care how many miles per gallon, or litres per kilometre, I just know it comes to around £40, which seems to be about one third of the price required to fill the tank of a Chelsea Tractor. The point I am making is that detailed knowledge of the measurements is not the only factor to be taken into consideration.

    As I have written this I realised that one recent innovation on my electricity bill indicates what proportion of the electricity comes from nuclear. I do not want any of my electricity to come from nuclear. But despite all Ed Davey’s talk about choice and markets I do not really have any choice at all because the market is rigged, always has been. I know that when I switch suppliers the electricity coming down the wire will still sometimes come from nuclear. The only way to ensure that it does not is to go “off grid”.

  • Jenny, I’m not sure which bit of my point you were referring to in the first part of your comment.
    My understanding is that wind turbines and farms are rated on their total generative capacity (ie. what could be expected if the turbine/farm ran 24x7x365 at it’s optimal speed etc.) and not their anticipated or actual output. My understanding is that Ed’s reference to 4 million ‘homes’ is with respect to the officially recorded capacity rather than the reality that the NETA data shows.

    Yes, I understand your point that ‘homes’ is not an exact unit, however it is good enough for most purposes so that a reasonably large community of mixed housing (probably around 1000) would tend to the average – hence why it is appropriate to suggest that Ed effectively takes 4 million ‘homes’ off grid.

  • @JohnTilley
    You raise an interesting and important points about what units people use and take note of:

    Firstly, your observation about cars. I suspect that few actually know or calculate how many miles per litre/gallon they achieve; however many will know how many miles they typically get out of a “full tank” and hence whether they’ve had good or bad fuel economy. The reasoning for this is that we in-frequently change our cars hence we quickly gain an understanding of our car and our usage, from that point on the only real issue is variance in consumption and the cost of a “full tank”.

    I agree similar thinking applies to our homes, once you’ve gained a measure on your annual energy consumption (and the contributions made by appliances and behaviours), the only real concerns are variance and price. Obviously, when purchasing new appliances people will take energy efficiency into consideration, however, once purchased and installed how many for example having installed a condensing boiler actually operate it in a way that maximises it’s efficiency?

    Which brings us to energy bills, I doubt many people would pay any attention to information about the proportions of of their energy came from nuclear etc. – likewise how many of us actually read the council tax pie chart break down our councils send us every year?

  • Jenny Barnes 20th Apr '14 - 9:03am

    Roland, I’m sorry to tell you that your understanding is wrong. Wind turbines are indeed rated on their full output, so a typical large turbine would be rated at 7MW. If it were the case that it would run 24/7, such a turbine would support 14,000 windspeak homes. Wind output is usually taken to average 1/3 of rated output, so it would in Ed Davey’s terms actually support 4,700 windspeak homes, or have an average output of 2.3MW. You could, theoretically, take those 4,700 homes off the grid if you also had sufficient storage for the energy produced when the turbine was running full speed, to compensate for when it wasn’t. Of course, having a country wide grid, and interconnectors to France, Norway, and Ireland, means we don’t need that much storage. But it is still an issue.
    John: I’m happy for people to use “Blue Peter” units – The Olympic swimming pool as a unit volume, the football pitch or Wales as a unit of area, the london bus as something or other – as long as they’re not trying to pull the wool. And the windspeak home looks to me like an attempt to do just that. Wind is a good technology, IMAO, and doesn’t need “spin”. How hard would it be to write 4million homes (2GW equivalent) ? (And I notice that I did the calculation wrong in my first post (blush) – it’s actually ONE large fossil fuel station like Ferrybridge)

  • Jenny Barnes 20th Apr '14 - 10:10am

    I think there’s an implicit calculation about how much political pain for how much CO2 output saved. Hinkley point C if built (3.2GW) would power 6.4 million “homes”. Is that more or less painful than the onshore wind already built + a further 50%? Or would it be easier to replace 6GW of coal fired with 6 GW of gas fired power stations? (Gas is about 1/2 the CO2 output per KWh of coal). If we make onshore wind sound like it’s doing a lot, maybe it’s easier to justify?

  • Jenny Barnes
    You deserve credit for admitting your mistake. I bet nobody else noticed, or they would have said.

    I certainly agree about pulling the wool. Ed Davey has form. He pulled the wool over the eyes of the conference when he got a couple of hundred people to vote for nuclear on the basis that he was against subsidies, and then a month later announced one of the the biggest ever subsidies for Hinkley C. If it is allowed to go ahead that subsidy will still be there decades from now by which time other countries will have moved on from fossi fuels and from nuclear.

  • Jenny Barnes – Thanks for the detailed response. I like your use of “Blue Peter” units to put some sense of scale on Ed Davey’s onshore wind claims.

    Personally I suspect the political pain of building a few nuclear reactors (and we really need to build a few of the same design and so avoid the mistakes of the last generation where each was a bespoke design) is actually quite small compared to the backlash being received by ill-considered wind farm planning applications.

  • Roland
    Your throw away complacency about “a few nuclear reactors” is staggering.
    In terms of this discussion you might want to read this from the New Scientist last September about the continuing and future cost of coping with one element of the Fukushima disaster.
    Note in particular the plain fact of the cost of just one post Fukushima operation – a cost of $320 million AND it will use enough power each day to run 3300 Japanese households

    Japan will build wall of ice to stem Fukushima leak – environment – 03 September 2013 – New Scientist

    It will take until March 2015 to build, cost $320 million and use enough power each day to run 3300 Japanese households. Yet the country’s government this week decided a wall of ice is the best solution to stem the flow of radioactive water leaking from Fukushima Daiichi’s four stricken nuclear reactors.

    The wall is the centrepiece of a $470 million drive to stop 400 tonnes of groundwater being contaminated every day. It is currently being stored in an ever-increasing number of huge tanks.

    Kajima Corporation will build the 1.4-kilometre wall by sinking pipes carrying freezing fluids into the ground, gradually freezing it to form a barrier of permafrost 30 metres deep, down to the bedrock. This will force the water to drain into the sea instead.


  • John

    My complacency is more about facing the inevitable, that we will be building 8 new nuclear reactors in the coming decade. The problem we have is that governments have repeatedly turned away from taking the really hard decisions and instead taken the politically expedient one, which in the case of energy has largely been to delay and push it on to a future administration.

    Yes I don’t like it, but unfortunately those in power (and many of their supporters) are still deluding themselves that we can carry on growing the population, growing the economy etc. etc.; it is one reason why I reckon a UK population of circa 5M in 2050 is more than just an outside possibility…

  • Roland
    At one time people believed that it was inevitable that a Liberal Democrat Secretary of State for Energy would stick to our policy of renewables and reduction in use of electricity.
    At one time people thought it was inevitable that the Soviet Union would dominate half of Europe and that Arabs would be happy to ride around on camels whilst the West exploited their oil.
    If there had been people around at the time they might have thought it was inevitable thatDinosaurs would continue to stalk the earth. Nuclear power plants are the dinosaurs of electricity production.
    Nothing is inevitable in politics.

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